The work of Christmas begins – An Epiphany reflection

Detail from sweatshirt design depicting the magi riding camels towards the star. The first is pointing at the star. The last is saying ‘Are we nearly there yet?’

THE COMMUNITY in which I joined the Methodist Church in 2022 hosts a short telephone service on Sunday afternoons – like a Christian conference call! Today I was invited to offer a five-minute reflection on the story of the magi travelling to find Jesus in Bethlehem [Matthew 2:1-12].

I also reflected on the poem The Work Of Christmas by Howard Thurman.

As wise as they are, the magi from the east don’t end up in the right place at first.

They use their wisdom to interpret the movement of stars to foretell the birth of a new king of the Jews.

But they don’t trust the star alone. They assume that if a new king of the Jews is being born, it will be in Jerusalem.

They go to Herod, the King of Judea, appointed by the Romans who occupy Palestine at this time. Herod consults priests and teachers who confirm the prophecy of the prophet Micah that ‘a ruler to shepherd Israel’ would come from Bethlehem. Herod asks the Magi to find the child and return with the news, not so the King might worship him, but so that he might remove a potential threat to his worldly power.

The star goes ahead of them and stops over the place where the child is – perhaps they would have found Jesus anyway if they had trusted their judgement and not checked it out with those they expected to know better.

Although they don’t find a prince in a palace in a great city as they expect, they are overjoyed, bow down and worship. Only then do they ‘open their treasures’, in the presence of Jesus who needs nothing from them, but whose presence among them calls them to respond with love and generosity.

Their gifts reflect the wisdom of the prophecy they had seen in the star – gold for a king, incense for a priest, and myrrh to represent death and mourning, a prediction of Jesus’ sacrifice of love for all people.

Just as their journey to find the new king takes an unexpected route, so does their return. A prophetic dream warns them to defy the order of Herod, an unjust ruler, and find another way home.

The celebration of these events has become known as Epiphany, from a Greek word for ‘a moment of sudden and great revelation or realization’, as Jesus was revealed to those outside the Jewish faith (known as gentiles) for the first time.

Although the Bible does not say how many magi there were, or their gender, traditionally they have become known as three wise men, or kings. They have also been named in oral and written tradition as Balthasar from Arabia or Ethiopia, Melchior from Persia [modern day Iran], and Caspar from India. In Christian art they are often shown with different skin colours.

Did their journey end when they got home?

How might their extraordinary journey have changed them?

What might they have told people when they got back?

The Bible is silent on these questions, but it is interesting to ponder what the impact of meeting Jesus might have been on them, and the communities and cultures to which they returned. Consider the impact of meeting Jesus on others whose stories we know, such as Zaccheus the tax collector, Mary Magdelene, and St Paul).

In the poem, The Work Of Christmas, Howard Thurman calls us to reflect on what needs to happen next

‘When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home’

and what the transforming potential of this encounter with Jesus could be.

The author of this poem was not just dreaming of an abstract future – he was at the forefront of a movement for justice for marginalised people in the USA in the 20th century. He preached that humans need to seek an inner spiritual happiness that would lead them to share their experience in community with others. In 1953, he became the first black dean at a mostly white university, mentoring Martin Luther King Jr as he developed his philosophy of nonviolence. Martin Luther King Jr carried with him Thurman’s book, Jesus and the Disinherited, while protesting racial segregation. The book argues that Jesus taught unconditional love for oppressed people that would enable them to challenge their oppression and for God’s justice to prevail.

So as the Christmas season ends, how can we seek, as Howard Thurman suggests:

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among the people,
To make music in the heart.

As we celebrate Epiphany this year, what might your great realization be? Maybe this new insight can inspire us to live more gently, lovingly, and intentionally, with God’s help?

This is my prayer for us all this year, that the infinite, unconditional, intimate love of God revealed to us in Jesus can continue to show us a better way to be, as beloved children of God, called to love one another as ourselves in community.

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